The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a period of unprecedented political and social upheaval throughout the Western world. As the decadence of the ruling aristocrats gave way to revolutionary excesses, so too did artists find themselves reconsidering their traditional role in the greater cultural arena. As art production shifted from large decorative projects and commissioned portraiture to the more personal interests of the artists involved, there was likewise a significant reappraisal of the meanings of art as a potent esthetic emotional and even political stimulator.
Few periods in art history continue to bring out such violent reactions from modern eyes as that which spanned most of the eighteenth century up to the French Revolution – a period commonly referred to as the Rococo. This style of art and decoration is characterized by lightness, grace, playfulness, and intimacy. (Osborne, Jordan) Rococo designers were concerned with colorfully fragile decoration, supple curves, and spirited elegance. In painting and sculpture artists moved away from the high seriousness of subject matter, the emphasis on drawing at the expense of color and the huge scale of the official art of the French academy of the 17th century, towards an art suited in scale, temper, and form to the metropolitan, cultured, fashion-conscious, and essentially domestic society of Louis XV’s Paris. Fiske Kimball, the chief historian of the style, has called the Rococo “an art essentially French in its grace, its gaiety and its gentleness”. (p.111) The Rococo was both a development from and a reaction to the weightier Baroque style, and it was initially expressed mainly in decoration. It shared with the Baroque a love of complexity of form, but instead of a concern for mass, there was a delicate play on the surface, and somber colors and heavy gilding were replaced with light pinks, blues, and greens, with white also being prominent.
Watteau is generally regarded as the first great Rococo painter. His work has a poetic profundity and a tincture of melancholy that none of his successors ever approached, and which has puzzled literal-minded historians to explain. (Michel, 121) Watteau’s paintings are difficult to date, but among the best of his early works is The Village Bride. By 1717 he had achieved the most ambitious and characteristic statement of the theme of love that preoccupied him – The Pilgrimage on the Island of Cythera. Boucher and Fragonard are the painters who most completely represent the spirit of the mature Rococo.
As history moved on it seemed that the cool analytic character of the Classical period appealed to those who saw restraint and sacrifice as admirable virtues in a world bounding for certain chaos. The late eighteenth century was one of such period when the art embrace the challenging rigor of a new regime: Neo-Classicism. Neoclassicism was the predominant artistic style in Europe and North America between about 1750 and 1830. What is distinctive about the classical revival of the later 18th century was its emphasis on archaeological exactitude, the result of the period’s unprecedented level of knowledge of the art and architecture of the ancient world. However, painters were able to draw little inspiration from surviving fragments of ancient painting and artists looking for a means to represent the more heroic and morally uplifting themes in reaction to what was increasingly perceived as the frivolous and unedifying subject matter of Rococo art, were obliged to turn to the example of Raphael and, above all, Poussin for inspiration. In France in particular, Neoclassicism was associated with a desire to return to the dignity and grandeur of the art of the 17th century. Both the aesthetic and the moral aspects of Neoclassicism found their most compelling expression in the works of David. Combining the Stoic themes and austere compositions of Poussin with a renewed study of ancient sculpture, in particular relief sculpture, such paintings of the 1780s by David as The Oath of the Horatii (Figure 1) and The Death of Socrates (Figure 2) represent the high-water mark of Neoclassical painting. As one can observe David’s paintings have classical subjects of great moral seriousness and an austerity of style in which color is subordinated to line and both to a rigorous clarity in the presentation of the picture’s theme. They give expression to the new cult of the sterner civic virtues of stoical self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, honesty, and austerity which the later 18th century thought to find in ancient Rome. (Johnson, 1993) Rarely has the predominant philosophical and political spirit of an age been so perfectly and convincingly embodied in art. With these pictures David gained international recognition as the leader of the French school, and his studio became the training ground for painters from across Europe.
Because Neoclassicism placed respect for approved models above personal expression it was a style that particularly lent itself to this kind of international currency. The 18th century saw a great growth in the publication of lavishly illustrated volumes on classical art, architecture, and antiquities and this helped to spread the ideals of the movement. There was, however, considerable stylistic variation within Neoclassicism; Angelica Kauffmann, for example, painted in a delicate and pretty manner that is far removed from David’s severity.
Another great artist of that period was Francisco de Goya, Spanish painter, who was the most powerful and original European artist of his time. He is often related to the movement of Romanticism, however, it would be more appropriate to put him as an intermediary link between Neo-classical artists and Romanticists. While working as court painter he produced on his own savage drawings and etchings that exposed the malaises of contemporary society and the horrors of war. Goya’s portraits exhibited the manner of natural, lively, and personal style, showing increasing mastery of pose and expression, heightened by dramatic contrasts of light and shade. From about the same date as the royal group portrait are the celebrated pair of paintings the Clothed Maja and Naked Maja (Figure 3), whose erotic nature led Goya to be summoned before the Inquisition.
Goya’s haunting visions of a world of perpetual gloom and unfulfilled desire was by no means an isolated attitude by the second decade of the nineteenth century. It appears that Neo-Classicism had run its course; the need to order and aggrandize the world through art had, by the fall of Napoleon, created a rather rigid and uncompromising situation. Analytic clarity and heroic subjects had simply become tired motifs and many saw the restrictive conventions of Classicism as no longer appropriate in an age of dynamism and chaos. What was needed instead was the method for expressing all of the intangibilities that everyone felt. It required gifted visionaries which the Romantic attitude could easily furnish with.
Romanticism movement in the arts flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Romanticism is so varied in its manifestations that a single definition is impossible, but its keynote was a belief in the value of individual experience. In this it marked a reaction from the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the orderliness of the neoclassical style. As already mentioned Neoclassical artists typically stressed such ideas as duty and stoicism, whereas Romantic artists often chose subjects that were wild, exotic, or mysterious. They explored the values of intuition and instinct, exchanging the public discourse of Neoclassicism, the forms of which had a common currency, for a more private kind of expression.
A more sensuous use of paint and more ironic or unheroic subject matter were the typical features of French artist Eugène Delacroix, who shocked the Parisian public in the 1820s with scenes of sensuousness, violence, and dissipation – notably his Death of Sardanapalus (Figure 4). This picture also represented another theme common to the Romantics – the interest in the exotic and the non-Western which is seen most strongly in the interest in the Orient. Delacroix painted one of the most brilliant orientalist works of the period: The Women of Algiers (1834).
The medieval revival is perhaps the most identifiable part of Romanticism, though it found expression in medieval and traditional literary forms and was accompanied by a revival of medieval styles in architecture. What concerned painters, only in Britain the group of artists formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848. As with the medieval revival, the renewed interest in nature followed. This taste proved to be a great stimulus for landscape painting, which grew into one of the most powerful artistic forms of the period—notably in the hands of British artists Turner and Constable, and the German Caspar David Friedrich. For all these artists, landscape painting was like poetry, the means of exploring the spiritual depths of man’s response to nature. With the Romantic generation of landscapists there emerged a new and more intensive form of the study of nature, epitomized in the plein air sketch, in itself a harbinger of Impressionism. The obsession with atmosphere led to new and vibrant, near-abstract forms of painting, particularly such works by Turner as Rain, Steam, and Speed. (Figure 5)
The leading Romantic artists differ widely from one another – Blake and Turner in Britain, Delacroix and Géricault in France, Friedrich and Runge in Germany. The movement of which they were a part died out in the mid-19th century, but in a broader sense the Romantic spirit has lived on, representing a revolt against conservatism, moderation, and insincerity and an insistence on the primacy of the imagination in artistic expression.
The end of nineteenth century was marked by the origin of the style that had an enormous impact on Western art over the following half-century. Impressionism was never a school or movement with a clearly defined program; rather it refers to a disparate group of painters who banded together in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. The name ‘Impressionism’ was coined by the critic Louis Leroy in response to a picture by Monet, Impression: Sunrise (Figure 6) in 1874; the artists themselves did not adopt it officially until 1877. The informality of brushwork, bright color, and tendency to work in the open air was often associated with Impressionism but still cannot be applied to all of those regarded as Impressionists: Edgar Degas preferred to work from the model in the studio and his crisp linear technique expresses his admiration for academic principles. Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise is a very different kind of painting to those known before. Concrete form carefully executed to give the suggestion that it exists in a defined space vanished. Instead the work appears as a series of “color events” (Emmons 1958, 47) taking place on the surface of canvas, where forms are articulated through their response to light. The series of paintings by Claude Monet and Renoir produced the scenes of leisure in a fashionable suburban setting which were typical of much of the work of the 1860s and 1870s. They demonstrated a continuation of the realist commitment to modern life subject matter. Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère combines spontaneity of execution with a commitment to close study of the way in which the colors of objects are modified by the effects of light.
The other painters that are normally associated with the Impressionism are Cézanne, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. Having stated this, there is a need to acknowledge limitations to the above work since its limits deprive us the possibility to pay due attention if not to each of these painters then at least to most influential of them. Nevertheless, the brief summary of art development in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries presented by the paper provided the understanding of what stimulated artists’ work and of the nature of their reaction to surrounding events.
Eitner, Lorenz (1971) Neoclassicism and romanticism: 1750 – 1850; sources and documents. London: Prentice-Hall Intern.
Johnson, Dorothy (1993), Jacques-Louis David, Princeton University Press
Kimball, Fiske. (1964) The Creation of the Rococo. New York: W. W. Norton.
Michel, Marianne Roland. (1984) Watteau: An Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Alpine Fine Arts.
Osborne, Harold and Jordan, Marc. (2001) “Rococo” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press.
Rouart, Denis. (1958) Claude Monet. Translated by James Emmons, New York: Skira.
Vaughan, William (1994) Romanticism and Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
The Oath of the Horatii
Oil on Canvas (10′ 10″ x 13′ 11″”), 1784
Musée du Louvre at Paris
The Death of Socrates
Oil on canvas (1,30 x 1,96 m), 1787
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (USA)
The Naked Maja
Francisco Jose de Goya
Oil on canvas
97 x 100 cm, 1798-1805
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Death of Sardanapalus.
Oil on canvas. 1827-1828
Louvre, Paris, France
Rain, Steam, and Speed. The Great Western Railway
1844, Oil on canvas
91 x 122 cm
National Gallery, London
Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
Oil on canvas, (48 x 63 cm), 1873
Musee Marmottan, Paris